In late spring, Anita Kuennen was getting some very intimate text messages from a variety of unknown callers.
"How do you make out?!" one read. "What's the best kind of condom to use?" said another.
Kuennen was delighted.
She and her colleagues at Missoula's Blue Mountain Clinic have launched a sexual health text hot line, ASKMAP (ASK Montana Access Project), for teens and young adults across Montana and eastern Idaho after a successful test conducted by volunteer Lynsey Bourke.
"Sexual health questions plague the younger generation," Bourke said. "Sometimes they don't want to ask their parents or their teachers."
The purpose of the program is to provide teens easy access to fast and reliable sexual health information, said Kuennen, executive director of the Blue Mountain Clinic.
Teens or young adults simply text their sexual health questions to 66746. Type the keyword "ASKMAP" followed by a space before typing the question.
The service is free and available during normal business hours Monday through Friday; text messages are generally answered within a half-hour. It is also completely anonymous, Kuennen said. Although the questions are recorded, the clinic never sees the phone numbers or personal information associated with the text.
Bourke tested the program with three focus groups at Salish Kootenai College, Hellgate High School and Willard Alternative High School. The support was overwhelming, she said.
"I thought it was really important to get input from high school students, since the service is for them," Bourke said. "The teachers were really excited about having us come in."
The focus groups had a dual mission: to determine if teens and young adults lack access to accurate sexual health information and to see what level of use the hotline would receive.
Bourke found that high school students, especially, don't always know where to find such information. There are a variety of places they can look, most notably the Internet.
"Whenever (teens have) a sexual health question ... they often Google it," Bourke said. "High school students might go into forums, which aren't necessarily very accurate."
Sixteen-year-old Mary Cates, a junior at Hellgate High School, said that before the program was launched she did not always have a bona fide avenue to find sexual health information. Her older sisters would sometimes answer questions.
"I feel really comfortable talking to (my older sisters)," Cates said. "That is fortunate; a lot of people don't have that."
Cates first learned about ASKMAP through a friend at Hellgate, she said.
"We did it as a joke at first," Cates said. "But we got back very scientific, nice answers."
Before long Cates was genuinely using the service.
"There are a lot of questions that you are embarrassed to ask," Cates said. "Maybe some people will think it is a stupid question. (But with this service) it is really easy to ask and it's not embarrassing."
So far, the text message hot line has received around 300 questions, mainly from the focus groups conducted by Bourke, said Kuennen, who initiated the project.
Kuennen hopes the service will be used by teens and young adults in rural areas where access to accurate sexual health information can be hard to come by because fewer organizations exist to provide it.
With this goal in mind, the Blue Mountain Clinic has also launched a comprehensive website, www.askmap.info/, to correspond with the text message hot line.
The website has an interactive map feature showing what services are available in different regions across Montana and Idaho. It also lists frequently asked questions compiled from the ASKMAP hot line.
"We've been dreaming about doing this for so long," Kuennen said. "It is so nice to see it happen."
Funding for the hot line and website came from the Anna Lalor Burdick Program, which funds one-time projects that educate young women about reproduction, according to its website.
The Blue Mountain Clinic also provides a family practice service, sexual health care, mental health counseling and first trimester abortions, according to its website.
Jessie Higgins is a fourth-year journalism student at the University of Oregon who is interning this summer at the Missoulian. She can be reached at 523-5251 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.